May 14, 2021 

2021 WNBA season preview: Indiana Fever

Can Marianne Stanley lead the franchise back to glory in year two as head coach?

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PALMETTO, FL – SEPTEMBER 3: Shey Peddy #5 of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball against the Indiana Fever on September 3, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling / NBAE via Getty Images)

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The WNBA’s 25th season is rapidly approaching, with the Indiana Fever set to tip off the 2021 campaign on May 14th in Brooklyn against the New York Liberty.

Indiana is in the midst of a multi-year rebuilding process stemming from the retirement of 10-time All-Star and current General Manager Tamika Catchings. Since Catchings’ playing career ended in 2016, the Fever have amassed a combined record of 34-90, every season concluding without a postseason berth.

In an attempt to right the ship, Catchings hired Marianne Stanley, former longtime assistant coach of the Washington Mystics, before the 2020 season. Stanley was dealt an unfortunate hand during her first head coaching position in 17 years, as the league relocated all operations and games to the “wubble” in Bradenton, Florida due to COVID-19.

Though the Fever went 5-7 over their first 12 games in Bradenton, they stumbled down the stretch, losing eight consecutive games en route to a disappointing 6-16 record.

Catchings added several pieces this offseason to help accelerate that rebuilding process, attempting to instill a “championship culture” that the Fever locker room has sorely missed in recent years. Although the roster improvements are enticing on paper, Indiana still has several questions to answer before they can take that next step and return to the postseason.

Will the players buy into Stanley’s emphasis on defense?

Nothing played a larger hand in the Fever’s 2020 struggles than defense — or the lack thereof. Indiana finished dead last in the WNBA in defensive rating (111.8), opponent points per game (89.5) and opponent field goal percentage (47.2). The Fever allowed teams to score 90 points on 10 different occasions, and 100 points on four.

“I think last year was a little wake-up call for us as far as our defense,” Stanley said during Media Day. “This year we’re totally committed to improving it, making it better and being able to be one of the better defensive teams in the league, thats a goal.”

In efforts to achieve that goal, the Fever acquired the 6’2 Jessica Breland, a 2018 All-Defensive Second Team member, during the offseason.

The Fever also present a three-headed monster in the paint, led by Teaira McCowan at 6’7, followed by Lauren Cox and Jantel Lavender each at 6’4. This newly-formed trio should help Indiana improve its interior defense against other lengthy posts as well as speedy, penetrating guards.

“We recognize that we’ve got some size this year that allows for us to protect at the rim and do some different things defensively,” Stanley added. “Each and every player on this team needs to buy into the defensive end of the floor and make sure that they’re doing everything they can to improve.”

The selection of first-round draft pick Kysre Gondrezick should help the Fever’s perimeter defense as well. Gondrezick averaged 1.7 steals per game during the 2020-21 season at West Virginia, including a career-high eight in a February loss to Oklahoma.

The Michigan native admitted on Media Day that she’s already experiencing the challenges of defending in the WNBA, compared to the college game.

“It’s very hard because everyone’s a threat, there’s not a weak link on the floor,” said Gondrezick. “And having to guard a true one v. one defense so that you don’t get beat consistently, because the paint is wider, it’s longer. With the defensive three seconds, you can’t just sit in there, in help side.”

Will the renewed emphasis and personnel additions result in the Fever improving their abysmal defensive metrics from a season ago? This will likely serve as the greatest indicator as to whether Indiana can win more games.

Can Kelsey Mitchell make the leap from great to elite?

Kelsey Mitchell has improved her personal statistics every year she’s played in the WNBA, but last year was particularly impressive. She increased her scoring average from 13.6 to 17.9 points per game, and her field goal percentage from 39% to 45%.

So what enabled the former three-time Big Ten Player of the Year and 2018 second overall pick to elevate her game as drastically as she did?

“The thing that changed for me was my mentality,” Mitchell explained. “It started with confidence. I wasn’t just going to the gym to put in shots, I just had to believe. Everything for me is mental and let the physical follow. If I can believe that I can do it, that’s the only thing that should matter.”

Though Mitchell flashed her individual greatness in 2020, her improvement did not result in more team wins. Can this be the season that Mitchell not only continues to raise her numbers but also contributes to winning? For her to do so, the Fever will need the ball in her hands consistently.

Mitchell has most often played as a shooting guard, but Stanley said she’s willing to be flexible when it comes to putting her star in an optimal position to score.

“I think she’s most valuable to us — and a big threat — when she’s at the two,” said Stanley. “With that said, there’s plenty of times in the offense that she’ll have pick and roll action. But I also can envision her — like a lot of coaches will do — end-of-quarter, end-of-game or situationally, being at the point with the ball in her hands.”

Mitchell said she’s been working on her shooting whenever she can, even going through an additional routine after practice ends. She gets 100 shots up across all different spots on the court within 15 minutes because, in her words, “timing is everything.”

“It’s all about repetition,” Mitchell said. “When you become a professional, it’s less about how long you’re there and more about the reps and the quality of the reps.”

While Mitchell has already proven that she’s one of the game’s elite scorers, can she take that next step to become an elite overall player, and lead the Fever to more wins?

Can the team develop enough chemistry in time for the season?

With the Fever extending 20 training camp invitations this year and just 12 final roster spots available, the player evaluation process was that much more difficult for Stanley and Catchings.

On Thursday, the Fever announced its final roster:

Lindsay Allen, Jessica Breland, Lauren Cox, Kysre GondrezickAaliyah Wilson, Chelsey Perry, Danielle RobinsonJantel Lavender, Teaira McCowanKelsey MitchellTiffany MitchellVictoria Vivians

*Bernadett Hatar will begin the season on the suspended list.

In what may come as a surprise to some, the Fever did not retain Kathleen Doyle, the team’s 2020 second-round pick and a former Big Ten Player of the Year at Iowa. Doyle struggled in her first season in the WNBA, averaging just 1.5 points per game on 24.4% from the field.

Indiana will have to adjust to life without their starting point guard from a year ago, as Julie Allemand will miss the whole season due to overseas commitments. Compound this with the four new free agent signings — Breland, Lavender, Robinson and Allen — and four rookies, and it’s fair to wonder how the team will develop chemistry in a short period of time with so many shuffling pieces.

The team is also dealing with lingering injuries to Gondrezick and Cox, both of whom sat out the team’s 82-65 preseason victory over the Chicago Sky on Sunday. Gondrezick returned to play in Tuesday’s loss to the Sky, two points in 16 minutes.

When the Fever’s new players take the court alongside the eight returnees on Friday night, will they have had enough time to get up to speed?

Written by Ben Rosof

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